The troubles with challenging identity

Last week I shared a very controversial article from Rebecca Reilly Cooper about gender identity. To summarise the article Reilly Cooper argues that making gender a ‘spectrum’ (with all the new identities that come with it) ends up just creating more restrictive gendered boxes, when what we need to be doing is tear down the idea of gender itself.

It’s not an understatement to say that the article was controversial and there was a particularly heated, but I think in many ways fruitful, conversation about it on the Queers Facebook page where we also shared it. There were plenty of critiques of the article, which is great, but I thought I wanted to focus on one. Many, I think rightfully, argued that Reilly Cooper took an extremely dismissive/snarky/aggressive tone toward trans and non-binary people, at times outright mocking them for their chosen identity and the politics that underpinned those identities.

I have to admit this is not something I thought of when reading the piece, but on reflection I can absolutely see it. The piece very much at times crosses the line from being interesting to being outright hostile. This is a real shame, as I thought it had some useful ideas. And so it’s got me wondering, how do we engage in discussions about the politics of identity in a way that does not does not end up diminishing people’s experiences and self-identification?

I want to maybe take this back away from gender for a moment, as I think this will be helpful for the debate. When reading Reilly Cooper’s article I was thinking a lot about identities around sexuality.

I have a lot of critiques of the politics of sexual identification, ones that go way back even to the politics of what feel like old terms such as ‘homosexual’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ etc. Examining the history of these terms you can see them to be relatively new ideas, and ones that were developed to inscribe particular power structures under capitalism. The terms heterosexual and homosexual only really appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s and were used as a way for the state and medical structures to delineate between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ sexualities and to repress the latter.

As gay rights movements developed and homosexuals have adopted these identity markers, I argue that, while it has clearly had its benefits, this approach has also worked to reinscribe a minority status. The delineation between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ has stayed the same — it’s just that we’ve tried to make the abnormal more socially acceptable. This has had two impacts. First it has reinscribed a sense of being a minority, creating and reinforcing powerlessness and a reliance on state structures. Secondly, it has made it nearly impossible to challenge the boundaries of sexuality in our society. Instead of blurring the boundaries of sexuality we have just worked to make one box more socially accepted. We can see this most strongly when it comes to debates around a ‘gay gene’, an essentialisation of sexuality that limits the potential for a breakdown of boundaries.

This is something that exists well beyond the realms of gender and sexuality as well. In a recent book chapter I read by Dipesh Chakrabarty, he argues that even the terms ‘man’, ‘woman’, and ‘child’ are categories that have been mobilised by capitalism in order to tell a story about the naturalness of the very system. Charkrabarty argues therefore that we must think about the history of capitalism potentially outside of these categories, a history he inscribes through the study of non-Western countries.

This is the value I thought Reilly Cooper’s article brought to the debate. For me Reilly Cooper argued that because we all hold masculine and feminine qualities that the idea of a gender binary simply does not exist, meaning that in turn we are all non-binary to an extent (she also argues something similar re trans, saying we are all effectively trans, but I think that is more complicated and more difficult to agree with, but that is maybe for another blog post). If we are all non-binary this potentially makes binary gender markers — cis and non-binary in this instance — useless. I feel this could be something we could say similarly about sexuality. If we blur the boundaries of sexuality, this makes even the idea of ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ blurry.

But this is where the challenge lies. Because while I make this critique of sexual politics, I also still identify as gay. I still frequently use that identifier to mark myself and to mark my politics. It is in many ways an important part of who I am. This is a contradiction. In many ways I see little political value to these identity markers, yet at the same time I see significant political value to these identity markers. Sometimes I really want to call myself queer, sometimes gay, sometimes homosexual, and at other times I want to challenge all these terms all together. It is complicated. And so of course I therefore respect those who identify as non-binary or trans or gender non-conforming, and expect many (although of course not all) may have similar feelings of complexity around those identifications.

This is what, on reflection, I think Reilly Cooper missed in her article. She missed the complexity that exists around identity, instead turning to mock gender non-conforming people as a solution. And no wonder it created such a reaction. I suspect if this had been written about sexuality I may have reacted in a similar.

So I am wondering how we do this? How can we engage in debates that acknowledge relevant political disagreements, disagreements we really need to be discussing. Because of course, while I have stated some of my critique of identity politics above, I also acknowledge that many people disagree with that as well, and that there is a clear politics behind it. These are important political questions. They are ones that are key to thinking about approaches to gender and sexual liberation.

This to me is the key part: politics. So much of our debate is missing politics (in a small p sense). My problem is not with people identifying however they want — whether it is in relation to gender or sexuality. My critique relates to when we try to mobilise these identities for political ends. This does not mean that I think there is no politics to identity movements. There is absolutely politics behind much of this, and at times I believe mobilising that politics can and has been useful. However, I also question the capacity to use identity for political ends in the long run. I think that there are better ways to achieve gender and sexual liberation.

How we engage in this debate, I do not know. But I think this is what I think Reilly Cooper missed. She had some interesting politics around gender, but mixed in with that she attacked and mocked and was dismissive. She ignored the complexity that exists around identity. And that, in the end, is not useful.

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